Date of Christmas
Was Jesus Born on Christmas Day?
Date of Christmas? Was it December 25th? The short answer is: probably not. We do not know with certainty the date of Jesus’ birth, but the traditional date is less likely than another, as I will explain.
First of all, let’s consider the year when this great event took place. Although many use the dating terms B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for the Year of Our Lord), Jesus was not born at the point where those two intersect. A sixth century monk named Dionysius was commissioned to set up a calendar of church festivals. No one knows for certain how he calculated the date of Christ’s birth but, because he apparently lacked accurate historical information, he missed the actual date by several years.
Herod the Great figures prominently in the story of the first Christmas (Matt. 2:1-8). But we have credible historical records putting the date of Herod’s death in the spring of 4 B.C. That means the dating of the visit of the wise men had to come some time before that.
Contrary to the pictures on some Christmas cards, the shepherds and the wise men did not arrive at the stable together. The wise men saw the star at the time of Christ’s birth. Then, they had to organize a caravan to travel some 600 miles from Persia, first to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem. All of that took several months. By that time, Mary and Joseph were living in a "house" (Matt. 2:11), not a stable.
Notice that when Herod tried to kill the Baby Jesus, he commanded that all the baby boys in the environs of Bethlehem who were two years old and under were to be slain (Matt. 2:16). (The two year age limit may have been simply to make Jesus’ death a certainty, even if information about His exact birth date was somewhat uncertain.) Perhaps all of that took about a year. If so, a likely year for the birth of Christ would then be 5 B.C.
Now, as to the month and day, there are a couple of clues in the biblical record. Luke tells us a census was taken of the Roman world (Lk. 2:1-3), for which each person had to go and register in his ancestral town. That is what brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (vs. 4-5). The Romans knew the weather was sometimes bad in December. They would not have chosen that time for a census, as the roads might have been unpassable. The more likely time would be in September or October, after the harvest was over.
This is confirmed by the fact that shepherds were pasturing their flocks out in the fields overnight (Lk. 2:8). They only did this from April to October. Any later than October, the pasturage was poor, and the weather was cold and wet. The flocks were penned at home in December, in whatever shelter could be provided.
An article on the Web (http://www.new-life.net/chrtms10.htm) uses the date of the priestly service of Zacharias, and the birth of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:5, 8), to calculate the time of Jesus' birth, since we know Jesus was born 6 months after John (Lk. 1:36). The author reasons the likely date of Christ’s birth is September 29th, 5 B.C. This would have been the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles, a most appropriate occasion for Jesus to be born.
That feast celebrated the time when the Israelites camped in the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land. When the camp was set up, their worship centre, called the tabernacle, was placed in the middle. There the Lord manifested His presence in the midst of His people in a pillar of cloud and fire (Exod. 40:36-38). That parallels the description John gives us of Christ’s coming when, “The Word [Christ] became flesh and dwelt [literally tabernacled] among us” (Jn. 1:14). Again, we cannot be absolutely certain, but the September date is more likely than the one used today.
WHY DECEMBER 25TH?
Why, then, do we call December 25th Christmas Day? There is no record of this celebration until we get to the third century. Early on, it was a pagan holiday in the Roman Empire, a feast to Mithras, the sun god, conqueror of darkness. One theory is that church officials may have hoped that by putting a Christian celebration honouring the birth of the Son on the same day as the festival honouring the sun god, Christianity would gain greater focus and attract more people to the church.
This happened during the rule of the emperor Constantine (280-337 A.D.), who proclaimed tolerance for Christianity in 313 A.D. Suddenly, it became acceptable–and even popular–to call yourself a Christian. As a result, there was a great influx into the church of people who still clung to their old heathen ways. Many who professed Christ were not truly born again.
The idea of combining a day honouring the sun god with one honouring the incarnation of God the Son to benefit Christianity did not work well. The manoeuvre in itself did not likely interest many pagans in converting. Contrarily, it encouraged a practice called syncretism, the attempt to combine biblical faith with other religious views--to add the Lord Jesus to whatever other gods you had. This cannot be done. The Bible presents Christ as the one and only Saviour (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12), and the God of the Bible as the one true God (Exod. 20:2-6; Isa. 45:5). Still today we see heathen practices combined with Christianity, and it is wrong and extremely harmful.
This historical background has led some to reject all Christmas celebrations completely. But I do not believe we have to go that far. The day is what you make it. No Christian that I know of tries to honour Mithras on Christmas Day. (He would not likely even know who Mithras is!) In the words of Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge, “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”
Though these words were spoken when Scrooge was lacking in any true Christmas spirit, the point is well taken. We are not to judge one another in the way we celebrate certain days. “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?...One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind....Each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:4-5, 12).
As the saying goes, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” A truly amazing thing took place on Christmas Day (whatever the exact date may be). Through a miracle of the Holy Spirit, and the humble instrumentality of a virgin peasant maiden from Nazareth, God the Son took on our humanity (Matt. 1:18-21; Lk. 1:34-35). He did that so He might give His life as a ransom for lost sinners (Mk. 10:45). That is worth celebrating! And though the commercialism and overindulgence of the season is sadly out of character with the true significance of the day, there is still much about it that is commendable.
It is a time of joy and light, a time of lovely music, a time of fellowship and family, a time of charity and generosity. And for many it is a special day of worship for the church of Jesus Christ, as we commemorate His coming. These things ought not to be lost. For myself, I plan to continue celebrating Christmas on December 25th, trying to do so in a way that will honour the Lord who came to save me.